GSI  ECR Engagement and Policy Network: In Conversation Series:  The Growing Influence of Climate Litigation with Ben Franta

 (Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Climate Litigation Lab, University of Oxford )

Climate change poses an urgent global challenge that demands action from governments, corporations, and civil society. In recent years, an increasing number of climate-related lawsuits have emerged worldwide, signaling a growing recognition of the need for legal avenues to address the impacts of climate changeDuring Ben’s talk, he explores the drivers behind the surge in climate litigation and highlights notable cases from different regions, shedding light on the implications of this trend for the fight against climate change. 

Emerging Trends in Climate Litigation 

Since 1986, there has been a substantial rise in climate-related lawsuits across the globe, with a significant spike in the early to mid-2000s. While the United States has witnessed a considerable number of such cases, Europe, Australia, East Asia, and South America have also seen notable litigation activities. It’s important to note that these cases are not solely aimed at promoting climate action; some are filed against aggressive climate action, reflecting the diverse perspectives and legal debates surrounding climate change. 

A notable development in recent years is the emergence of a new wave of climate change litigation, primarily focusing on corporate responsibility. These cases explore unexplored areas of law, such as product liability and consumer protection, to hold corporations accountable. For example, a Massachusetts consumer protection lawsuit alleges that ExxonMobil engaged in misleading communications regarding its impact on climate change. Similarly, Puerto Rican municipalities have sued multiple oil and gas companies, claiming a shared scheme to deceive the public about climate change and seeking compensation for damages caused. 

Transnational Impact and Replication 

Climate litigation is not confined to specific regions; it has a transnational impact. During the seminar, Ben introduced the Climate Litigation Network, which demonstrates a collective effort to file cases worldwide based on similar legal arguments. This network has achieved success in approximately 10 countries, highlighting a growing global movement to enforce social standards of care through court actions. Additionally, international courts, despite their limited enforcement mechanisms, play a crucial role. Their judgments can influence domestic laws and serve as persuasive precedents. Notable examples include the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, all addressing climate change-related obligations and impacts. 

Shifting Paradigms: From Damages to Decarbonization 

A significant shift in climate litigation is observed in Europe, where plaintiffs are seeking court orders to compel defendants to decarbonize their operations in line with the Paris Agreement. The agenda case in the Netherlands, filed by Dutch citizens and NGOs against the Dutch government, resulted in a court order requiring policy alignment with the Paris Agreement. Similarly, a case against Royal Dutch Shell, where the company is being sued for inadequate decarbonization efforts based on its duties of care to society was also highlighted. 

Driving Factors Behind Climate Litigation 

The seminar highlighted three key drivers that have contributed to the surge in climate litigation. Firstly, the growing evidence of historical deception by fossil fuel companies towards the public, which has emphasized the necessity of legal action. Secondly, as the damages caused by climate change become more apparent and quantifiable, along with improved scientific understanding, the impacts have become more tangible and measurable. Lastly, the perceived inadequacy of government responses to climate change has prompted individuals, communities, and organizations to turn to the courts as a means of achieving change. 

Climate litigation has emerged as a powerful tool in the fight against climate change, enabling individuals, communities, and governments to hold polluters accountable and demand necessary action. The cases highlighted through Ben’s research demonstrate the global nature of climate litigation and the diverse strategies employed to address the issue. As this trend continues, climate litigation is likely to play a crucial role in shaping policies and promoting sustainable practices, ultimately contributing to the global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. 

Author: Emily Robinson (GSI Engagment Network Lead)